Monday 11 March 2019
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
Leaving the European Union
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 239706 relating to leaving the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. When the Petitions Committee scheduled this debate, we were not entirely sure where we would be in the Brexit process when it happened. As we start this debate, I am still not entirely sure. We are where we are. There are opportunities for Members to discuss the issue in the main Chamber as well, so I suspect we will not be overwhelmed by the numbers coming to speak here today. I will say a little bit about what is happening this week and then go on to interpret the petition’s text and discuss possible ways forward.
As I said, we are not entirely sure what is happening this week, but we understand the Prime Minister will probably put what she describes as a deal to Parliament again. I have said on numerous occasions that the one word I would like to eliminate from the English language is “deal”. She has said many times that the options are her deal, no deal or no Brexit. The third option is generally presented almost as a threat, perhaps to her own side. It is suggested that it is an idea not to be taken seriously, but it is worth remembering that at the referendum almost three years ago, in a very different pre-Trump world, out of a population of some 65 million people in this country, just under 17.5 million voted to leave, which means that almost 50 million did not. Today I speak up for that forgotten 50 million, the 48% who did not vote for this mess and whose voice has too often not been heard. The debate has been constantly about the first two options, but the petition concerns the third, and it deserves proper consideration.
In December last year, which seems an age ago now, I asked the Prime Minister to revoke article 50 in the national interest, not least to allow those who claim to speak for the 52% to sort out what they actually want. She told me that revoking article 50 would mean staying in the European Union. Well, I and many others are fine with that. The petition, which now has more than 135,000 signatures, including, it will not surprise Members to hear, more than 1,100 from my own constituency of Cambridge, calls on Parliament to
“Revoke Art.50 if there is no Brexit plan by the 25 of February”.
That date was passed two weeks ago and we still do not appear to have a plan that can be agreed by the House. It is therefore fair to say that the petitioners would like us to revoke article 50 now.
By the hon. Gentleman’s own logic, if 135,000 people have signed the petition, does that not mean that about 65 million have not? We should therefore treat it with the contempt with which he has treated the referendum result.
I do not treat the referendum result with contempt. It has not been able to escape our attention and has dominated our lives for the past three years. The Petitions Committee should be treated with respect, and 135,000 signatures on a petition is not to be disregarded.
The petition text states:
“On the 25th of November both the UK Government and the European Union came to an agreement on the proposed departure from the EU. After an historic defeat in the House of Commons on the 15th of January, 2019 by a majority of 230 votes the PM has now decided to go back to the EU over the backstop.”
That is a statement of fact. On 25 November, the EU 27 leaders met for a special meeting of the European Council and endorsed the withdrawal agreement as presented by the negotiators of the EU and the UK. They also approved the political declaration on future EU-UK relations that accompanies the withdrawal agreement. The scale of the defeat in January was, I think, unexpected for most of us, and it is useful to consider why.
The petition mentions the backstop, which certainly accounts for part of the group of Government Members who voted against the deal, but there were many significant and substantial further concerns. For many of us, it was the imprecise nature of the political declaration that caused concerns; it looked like a wishlist of aspirations, rather than anything settled. Other concerns included the danger of a further cliff edge in two years’ time; the likelihood that at best we would pay to be part of programmes in which we no longer had any influence in terms of a vote; and the near certainty that we would still be subject to European Court of Justice jurisdiction. In other words, far from taking back control, we would, in the words of some, become “vassals”. Frankly, that had been obvious from the outset, and it was a pretty silly vassal that did not see that coming.
The second paragraph of the petition text states:
“Under section 5 (ii) of the Belfast agreement, 1998, there is agreement to ‘to use best endeavours to reach agreement on the adoption of common policies, in areas where there is a mutual cross-border and all island benefit’”.
Essentially, the Irish backstop is an unresolvable issue: it is a position of last resort that prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland by providing an EU-UK customs relationship if a suitable trade relationship has not been reached by the end of the transition period. Some are concerned that we cannot withdraw from it unilaterally, which of course is the whole point. It is a protection mechanism for both the Republic of Ireland and the UK as well as the rest of the EU, and thus it must apply to all of us.
Reams and reams have been written about the issue and months have been spent arguing about it and discussing it. The contents of the Attorney General’s codpiece continue to attract both speculation and consternation. Frankly, I suspect there is little that I can add to all the learned verbiage, other than the conclusion that it does not appear to be getting anyone very far. The technological solutions that some who fear being trapped inside a de facto customs union advocate to manage customs do not currently exist. Realistically, the backstop cannot change, or the protections that it offers will not be cast iron. Whatever codicils, clever words, Star Chamber tests or anything else are offered, a fundamental problem remains and is unlikely to be resolved.
Skilful negotiators are able to build confidence and create constructive ambivalence, allowing everyone to believe what they need to believe. It is a matter of politics, not law, and the Government’s failure to appreciate that is yet another in a long list of failures of basic competence. Brexiteers need to be honest: if they want to allow a position where a hard border becomes possible, they are accepting the potential break-up of the United Kingdom. By neglecting Northern Ireland in that way, it is possible that Brexit could result in the fracturing of our United Kingdom. For the Conservative and Unionist party, that is quite a price to pay. The border of the European Union will be the Irish border, as the Republic of Ireland is our only land border with Europe. The basic facts of geography are undeniable. Ireland is an island, and there is no way around that fact.
The third paragraph of the petition text considers the economic impact, noting that:
“The Government’s own economic analysis published in November 2018, shows that a no deal scenario will have roughly a 10% decrease in GDP.”
Again, volumes and reams have been written about the potential economic impact, particularly of no deal. Members will be delighted that I do not intend to re-rehearse those reams this afternoon. Like all economic predictions, it is of course contested, but we are in a curious place when the Government’s own economic predictions are treated with derision by their own supporters.
I will simply add to the already well-known data some information from last week, when the OECD published its regular economic outlook on the global economy. It predicts that a disorderly no-deal exit would probably spark a UK recession. The OECD shows that the UK economy has been weakening since the 2016 referendum.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that MPs for constituencies in the west midlands are very concerned. We have consulted universities and with Jaguar Land Rover, and they are all concerned about the situation that the Government find themselves in, because it means they cannot plan for the future. There are 800,000 jobs at stake in the motorcar industry alone, so we have to get it right.
Likewise, universities may have problems recruiting staff from abroad unless that issue is sorted out. More importantly, the Government will not guarantee funding for universities beyond 2020. People in the west midlands are concerned. The universities rely on the motorcar trade and vice versa, so it is a very serious situation that should not be treated lightly by anybody.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks with great knowledge about the west midlands and the motor industry. As a member of the Transport Committee, I have met with many motor manufacturing organisations, and I have watched aghast as the situation has unfolded over the last few months. It is very serious. Of course, the university sector is very important to my city. I have just come from a meeting with the University of Cambridge. My hon. Friend’s point about the uncertainty of future funding is very serious indeed.
To reinforce my hon. Friend’s point, Jaguar Land Rover has already made about 1,000 people redundant; it hopes to secure its future. Ford has made about 300 people redundant. Then there is Nissan and other such companies. The concern is very real. It is no good the Brexiteers treating lightly things that have serious implications for the country.
I agree entirely. Just the other day, I was calling on people when canvassing in Cambridge, and was struck by the number of people I was coming across who were raising personal experiences. Very senior engineers were telling me that they were applying for jobs in Switzerland because the research funding upon which they rely through the Europe Research Council will be going there. They have no desire to go and previously had no expectation that they would ever seek to leave such a wonderful place as Cambridge, but if that is where the research money is going, that is where scientists will go. It is a global set-up, and we risk doing huge harm to our industries and our universities.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the OECD forecasts show a general slowdown around the advanced world, particularly on the continent of Europe, and show that the UK will grow faster this year than either Germany or Italy? Will he also confirm that there has been a general hit to the car industry because of diesel, which has nothing to do with Brexit.
The OECD says all those things, but people in the motor industry are very clear that the uncertainty is an absolute killer when it comes to long-term investment. Of course, many of the decisions are not being made here, but in Japan. Those decisions are already being made, and are doing us huge harm. Of course there is a range of factors, but it is hard to imagine such instability not causing problems to our industries and universities.
The Government’s no-deal impact assessment, published two weeks ago, states that
“food prices are likely to increase”
and that customs checks could cost business £13 billion a year—an extraordinary sum of money. I have just come from an event that was about how our maintained nurseries are facing closure for want of a fraction of that amount. Why on earth are we doing it?
The Government’s report also said that the worst-hit areas economically in a no-deal scenario would be Wales, losing 8.1%, Scotland, losing 8%, Northern Ireland, losing 9.1%, and the north-east, losing 10.5%. It is no comfort to those of us in the west midlands and the east that it would be marginally better for us. Reportedly, even the most enthusiastic Brexiteers acknowledge that there could be problems in the short term. At least on that we can probably all agree.
Is not part of the challenge that we had all these debates in 2016? The fact is that all the doom and gloom of the economic predictions regarding a vote to leave did not materialise. Most people chose to ignore them, and had the courage to vote on the basis of sovereignty. Re-rehearsing the economic arguments does not seem to be having any effect on the views of the British people.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is very confident. I am sure that he is so confident that he is keen to see that tested in a further vote—I will come to that in a moment. One of the good things that has come from the process is that we all know so much more than we knew three years ago, not just in the country but in this place. As people begin to lose their jobs, and as the people of Cambridge begin to up and go elsewhere, it has become increasingly clear that it is no longer about possible projections, but what is actually happening on the ground.
I will pay the petitioners the tribute of finishing their petition before going further. In its final paragraph, the petitioners explain their view of the European Union’s perspective on the deal and the backstop. They say:
“The issue is that EU have firmly stated that they will not re-open negotiations with the UK over the agreement and remove the backstop.”
One of the most dismal aspects of the last three years has been a consistent failure on this side of the channel to understand how any of this looks from outside. The narrative of the evil European Union trying to punish Britain has, of course, been carefully burnished by some pursuing the Brexit cause, and their friends in certain newspapers, and will certainly continue to be promoted vigorously. Of course the European Union has its own interests, and it will fight for them. Why would it not? It has plenty of problems of its own to worry about.
The European Union has always been pretty clear that it would prefer that we had not decided to leave, but it has also been consistent and clear in its arguments. The UK has offered no workable solutions to the backstop issue. The EU has implored us to suggest something that would be fit for purpose, but the UK Government have suggested no mechanism that provides strong enough protections on the island of Ireland. It can hardly be a surprise that there has been so little progress.
I will try to bring the four paragraphs together, and summarise the petitioners’ case, which I take to be that years of work by officials, politicians, campaigners and more led to the withdrawal agreement and political declaration, but despite all that work it was overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons. On the issue of the public mood, interestingly, Professor John Curtice—one of the highest authorities on polling in this country—told an event just last week, hosted by the Economic and Social Research Council in a room adjacent to this Chamber, that that lack of confidence in the Prime Minister’s arrangements is shared by the public. Apparently just 30% of leavers support the Prime Minister’s proposals, and 22% of remainers, which I find slightly surprising, but there we go.
The 1998 Belfast agreement must be respected. That creates a near insoluble problem on the island of Ireland if the Prime Minister is going to continue opposing a UK-EU customs union. A no-deal option is economically highly dangerous, and the EU will not move further, given that it feels that it has already made substantial concessions, and the Prime Minister refuses to change her red lines. That, in substance, is the case being made by the petitioners.
Members will note that this has been a very brief account of some of the most complicated and contentious issues that this place has dealt with in many years. Many hours have been devoted to arguing about every aspect; before the debate started, we reckoned that the Petitions Committee has already brought six or seven such debates to this Chamber. I have chosen not to re-rehearse every argument in depth, because I am not sure that it would add much of value.
We are where we are—at the beginning of a week in which the whole country hopes that we can make some progress; in which the millions of non-UK EU nationals living in the UK, and the millions of UK citizens living in the EU, desperately hope that the uncertainty that blights their lives will end; in which the businesses desperately making plans for the uncertainty that risks wrecking their hard-earned investments in just a couple of weeks could see that uncertainty also come to an end; and in which the long-term sick, worried about security of supply of their vital medicines, could see an end to their anxiety. All that and much more could be done this afternoon—this very hour—were the Government finally to listen to the 48%, who voted for something achievable, rather than those who voted for a vague, wild and sometimes imprecise set of aspirations.
The petition sets out a compelling case. We have exhausted the first two of the Prime Minister’s options: the deal is dead, completely rejected by Parliament, and a no-deal exit would be irresponsible, plunging the country into chaos and hitting the most vulnerable hardest. It follows logically that we should go for what the majority of the country now want. If that is disputed, I say we put it to the test: have the vote on the work done by the Prime Minister and her Ministers. To finish with the Prime Minister—finish with her, not finish her—her deal, no deal, or no Brexit? Frankly, there is no contest. Simples: revoke article 50 now, and let the country move on.
The public who are listening to this and similar debates cannot believe that this Parliament so lacks confidence and courage that, two years and eight months on from the great people’s vote, it is still considering forgetting the impact of that vote and ditching Brexit altogether. The public are saying two things to us: “Get on with it!” and, from the majority who voted to leave, “What part of ‘leave’ did you not understand?”
Leave voters deeply resent how too many Members of Parliament and smart commentators look down on them and pretend that they did not understand what they were doing or know what they were voting for, or that they were in some way muddled about their aims. We have heard that again today from the Petitions Committee representative, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner): he says that we did not know what we were doing, that it was all fanciful and that we all had a mixed idea. We knew exactly what we were doing—voting to take back control. We voted to take back control of our laws, our money and our borders, and that is exactly what this Parliament has to get on and do.
I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but he cannot possibly say that two and a half years ago people knew precisely what they were voting for, when a few hours away from our vote, we do not know what we are voting on.
Well, I know exactly what I am voting on. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman has not prepared or read anything and does not understand what is going on, but I am voting to leave the European Union. The only way that we can now leave the European Union, because of the way in which the negotiations have been mishandled, is to leave on 29 March without signing the withdrawal agreement and to offer a comprehensive free trade agreement—which, if there were nothing else on the table, the EU would be well advised to accept.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to try again, he can try again.
Okay, what about haulage companies whose drivers need European Conference of Ministers of Transport permits? The UK can give out 984 permits, but there have been 11,300 applications. What does the right hon. Gentleman say to the 90% of hauliers who cannot get permits? Is that just a minor detail?
Well, the Government will make sure that haulage will work, and of course that is something that the Government can and will do. I have every confidence that roughly the same number of lorries will come through Calais and Dover on 30 March as on 28 March. I am sure it will work fine. I know of no reason why the Government would stop lorry drivers moving through Calais and Dover.
I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene at this unusually early stage; I know that he was just coming to the point that, back on 19 December, the Commission issued a no-deal notice to say that lorries can travel as they do now until December 2019, so there is no issue.
Exactly. That is another way of putting my reassurance that of course things are going to work, because it is in the interests of both sides.
I find it almost unbelievable that MPs elected to this place, who are meant to be serving the interests of their constituents, take delight in spreading false rumours about how everything will go wrong, like this nonsense about how drugs will not arrive in this country on 30 March. I know of no pharmaceutical companies on the continent that currently supply drugs to the NHS but have notified it that they no longer wish to do so. I have seen very clear documentation from the French side that it knows how it will handle the transit of trucks containing drugs, and there is very clear evidence that the UK Government wish all those drugs to carry on coming in with no new barriers. So what is the argument about drugs, other than a deliberate scare story to make the most vulnerable people in our country think that there is something wrong with Brexit? It is a disgrace, and we are fed up with it.
If there is no fear whatever, why are the Government telling people to stockpile? Why are pharmaceutical companies telling me, “There is one key ingredient in the entire process, and if we do not get it, we will run out of that product”?
The hon. Gentleman got the lorries thing wrong, and now he has got the drugs thing wrong. The Government are not asking people to stockpile drugs. People will buy their normal drugs in the normal way, or be offered them free on the NHS in the normal way. There is no need to panic, as I have just explained. The hon. Gentleman has not named a company or a drug that will be deliberately withheld from the British market; unless he can do so, I do not think that he has a case at all.
The pharmaceutical company Martindale tells me that it needs sugar to manufacture methadone, because it is a syrup. It has stockpiled three months’ worth, but then it will run out. If sugar does not come into this country, it will run out of methadone.
Why would somebody mount an economic blockade of Britain and not sell us their product? That is complete nonsense. This is a competitive world. When the scare stories were first put round that Calais would be blocked by deliberate action, I and others made inquiries and were told that Zeebrugge, Ostend, Antwerp and Rotterdam would love to have the business and were making very competitive offers against Calais, but Calais immediately said, “No, of course we don’t want to lose that business, and by the way we still have the shortest crossing, so it should still be the easiest way.”
Such malicious and unpleasant scare stories are why this Parliament is losing the trust of the public generally. The public expect us to be grown up and manage these things. If there are issues that need managing on our exit, it is our job to manage them, not to scaremonger or try to make them worse.
The right hon. Gentleman says that the public are losing trust in this Parliament. I put it to him that the reason the public—and indeed the people of Scotland—are losing trust in this Parliament is that, even at this late hour before our meaningful vote tomorrow, we have a Prime Minister jetting off to Strasbourg and trying to get last-minute concessions. This place is in absolute chaos. Is not that the reason people are losing trust in this Parliament?
I think the main reason people are losing confidence and trust is that all Labour and Conservative MPs, as far as I am aware, were elected on manifestos—[Interruption.] The SNP MPs clearly were not, but Labour and Conservative Members dominate the numbers in this Parliament, and we were all elected on manifestos that made it very clear that our parties fully respected the decision of the British people. We knew it was a decision; that was what the Government leaflet to all homes said, and what Parliament accepted in the debates on the referendum legislation, so we must honour that pledge. Our Conservative manifesto went further and explicitly said that we would leave the European Union, the customs union and the single market. There was no doubt about that; we were not muddled; we did not have different views; we did not want Norway plus or a Swiss model; we would leave every aspect of the EU, as described.
I find the situation bizarre, because it was this Parliament that gave the people the chance to have a referendum. It put the question that people voted on, but people did not vote in quite the way that it wanted. For possibly the first time, it is not that politicians have let the people down, but that people have let politicians down.
Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend makes his point very well: Parliament gave people the decision and people took it.
The Conservative manifesto was very clear that we would leave on 29 March. It also said, clearly and correctly, that
“no deal is better than a bad deal”,
so that if it appeared that the deal on offer after the negotiations was a bad deal—as it clearly is at the moment—the preferred option should be no deal. It further said, very wisely, that negotiations on the future partnership should proceed in parallel with the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement. I accept that the Government have made mistakes; their mistake of not keeping the two negotiations in parallel has led to a withdrawal agreement that most MPs could not possibly accept, because it is a surrender document and a disgrace—it is not Brexit as Brexiteers want it, and it is not something that remain voters want either.
The Labour manifesto was also crystal clear that the Labour party accepted the verdict as a decision. It did not offer a second referendum, nor did it think that the public had got it wrong. It set out a very imaginative and different United Kingdom independent trade policy at some length; I did not agree with all the detail, but I was delighted that the Labour party wanted a completely independent UK trade policy. Such a policy would be completely incompatible with staying in the customs union and/or the single market, because it would require all sorts of freedoms to negotiate higher standards and negotiate different deals with the rest of the world, which would not be compatible with staying in the EU’s version with lower standards and the customs union arrangements.
We are told that the petitioners think we should now revoke article 50 because we have not reached an agreement that Parliament can accept. That means no Brexit—turning down the views of the majority. The hon. Member for Cambridge tried to put the best possible spin on this by coming up with these specious numbers and saying that 50 million people did not vote for Brexit, therefore it cannot carry. That figure includes all the children in the country—I am interested to hear that, in his view, two and three-year-olds have a view and should have a right to a view. It is also assumes that everybody who did not vote in the referendum would, if they had bothered, have voted against Brexit, although there is absolutely no reason to presume that. On samples and polling, one would assume that the people who did not vote had exactly the same split of views as the people who did vote. There was nothing in the referendum to say, “If you want to remain, you might as well stay at home.” If people wanted to remain, there was every point in going to vote, just as there was clearly every point in voting if they wanted to leave.
If the view is to be taken that 50 million did not vote to leave, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is therefore also true that 51 million people did not vote to remain in the European Union?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is also a question of understanding how representative democracy based on elections and referendums works. In all other cases, Members of different parties in the House accept two things. First, they accept that when we have had an election, it is the votes that were cast that determine who gets to govern. We do not say, “Oh well. Many millions of people didn’t vote, and they wanted a different Government.”
Secondly, we also accept that it was the voters’ decision. We do not say, “Oh deary me. I’m still in Government. You tried to throw me out of Government—I’m sorry, electorate, you’re too stupid to understand. I’m doing a wonderful job and I’m actually going to carry on in Government, because I don’t agree with you. I might give you another vote in two three years’ time if you still haven’t come round to my point of view, but we’re just going to ignore the vote.” No right hon. or hon. Member would dream of saying that—not even members of the SNP, who have bitter experiences of referendums. They say they love referendums, but every time they hold one, they lose it. Every time they lose one, they then say, “That one didn’t count. Can we have another one?”
As usual, the right hon. Gentleman is speaking with complete consistency on these issues—it is normally tripe. On democratic mandates and referendums, I have listened to him talk about how the majority of people voted. He has not once made reference to the fact that 62% of people in Scotland voted remain. What does he have to say about that? What does he have to say about the people in Scotland who spoke with one voice and said that they wanted to remain? Sixty-two per cent. is a rather large number, yet he seems to be ignoring that.
It is a United Kingdom matter and it was a United Kingdom referendum. As someone who believes in the Union, but believes in the politics of consent above all, I am very proud that our country offered the people of Scotland the opportunity to leave our Union. I hoped they would stay, but I thought we were right to offer them the vote. Just look at the dreadful mess in Catalonia, where the Spanish state will not offer people a democratic choice.
We were right to say that only the people of Scotland should determine whether it stayed in the Union or left. We did not ask the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland; we let the people of Scotland determine their own future. They decided—I am very pleased and think they made a good decision—to stay in the Union. The next thing the Union did was have a referendum on whether the whole Union should stay in the EU. They had full opportunity to participate in that referendum and explain why more English people should have agreed with them, but they did not succeed. Under the rules of the Union, they have to live with the Union’s judgment.
The right hon. Gentleman is genuinely being very generous in giving way, and he has hit the nail on the head with that point. He is right to say that in 2014 the people of Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom on a prospectus of leaflets that were put out by the Better Together campaign and stated:
“The only way to secure Scotland’s membership of the European Union is to remain in the United Kingdom.”
We did that: we voted to remain in the United Kingdom and now find ourselves being dragged out of Europe. Does the right hon. Gentleman even begin to see—even through his Unionist-tinted glasses—just how difficult it is to reconcile that with a Unionist argument in Scotland?
Not at all, because that was an entirely truthful statement at the time. Clearly, Scotland had no right to independent membership of the European Union, which was the issue. It was already clear in 2014 that my party would campaign for a referendum. I always thought that we would win both the general election and the referendum—I was about the only person who thought that we would win both, and I am very pleased that we did. It was an entirely democratic process. Scottish voters could see that might happen when they made their decision to stay in the Union. As very welcome full members of our Union, they then had every opportunity to make a decisive intervention in the debate we had together on whether we stayed in the European Union.
I want to finish on the economic issues, of which much has been made. It is a strange debate, because most leave voters voted on the issues of democracy, independence, sovereignty, making our own decisions and spending our own money. I am someone who thinks that we will be better off—not worse off—by leaving the European Union. I have consistently argued this before and after the referendum. The case is very easy to make. I would like us to have a Brexit bonus Budget as soon as we leave the European Union at the end of this month. Such a Budget should boost our economy by between 1% and 2% of GDP.
Let me take the more modest version—a 1% boost from a £20 billion stimulus, which would provide a mixture of increased money for much-loved public services. It would also include tax cuts. The kind of thing I have in mind is more money for our schools budgets and teachers. We need more money for our armed forces and security, and for our police and the work on gangs, knife crime and so forth. We need more money for our social care, where the shoe has been pinching. The Government have already found prospectively large sums for the health service, and the challenge is to ensure that—where we vote those sums through—we get good value for money and are buying something that really does provide a higher quality service, which is what the public expect.
There should also be a series of tax cuts, firstly on VAT—the tax that we are not allowed to cut or reduce in so many ways, because it is an EU tax. I would take all VAT off green products, because it is wrong that people have to pay rather large taxes on better boiler controls, insulation and various other green measures they can take in their homes to cut their fuel bills. I would like to get rid of VAT altogether on domestic fuel. The budgets of people on the lowest incomes have the highest proportion of expenditure on fuel—there is fuel poverty. Why do the Government contribute to it by adopting an EU tax on domestic fuel? It would be good to get rid of that.
I would like stamp duties to be put back to the same levels as before the big hikes. I would not put back stamp duties that have been cut, but those that have been increased—it has clearly done a lot of damage to the property market by stopping transactions and stopping mobility—so that people can afford to live in the right-size property that is appropriate for their stage in life.
I would also like quite a big reduction in business rates. There is definite unfairness for high street retailing by comparison with online retailing, and now would be a good opportunity to reduce business rates. It is eminently affordable. The Government have provided their estimate of £39 billion, which is largely to be spent in a couple of years over the period of further negotiation. I think it will be much more than that in the long term—there are no numbers in the withdrawal agreement. Quite a lot of that money falls in the first couple of years, and I would like us to spend it in the next couple of years in the way I have described, with a £20 billion increase in the first year to get things going. There is a running saving of £12 billion a year or more from the saving of the net contribution, leaving aside any special payments under the withdrawal agreement.
The Chancellor has already let it be known that there has been a big overshoot of his fiscal tightening: we are borrowing far less than he was expecting, so he has a bit of leeway. We might learn more about that later this week. Putting it all together, the package I suggest is very modest, but it would give a very welcome improvement to our public services and give quite a good economic boost through targeted tax cuts. Our GDP would go up in the first year after we left the European Union, rather than go down on what it would have been otherwise.
I am just curious how a national debt of £1.7 trillion can be serviced with all these tax cuts.
As I just explained, my measures would not increase the build-up of public debt, but would be financed out of the amounts that are already in the Budget to go to the European Union.
The public find it extremely odd that many Members of Parliament want to give any amount to the European Union without challenging or probing what bill it is sending to us and why, and yet begrudge us spending that money on our priorities at home. One of the winning themes of the vote leave campaign was that we want to control and spend our own money. There is absolutely no legal obligation to pay that money to the European Union after 29 March, when we have left. Indeed, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 repeals the European Communities Act 1972, so I do not think the Government will have any powers to send money to the European Union after 29 March, given the admirable legislation now on the statute book that means that we will leave.
Many people who are interested in these affairs want us to get on with it and leave the European Union. Many share my optimism that we will be better out, trading and developing free trade agreements with rest of the world and cuttings tariffs where that makes sense and does not damage our home industry. Above all, we will spend the money that we will spare because we are no longer making a huge tribute to the European Union through these very large sums of money. What’s not to like? How do MPs who got elected to implement Brexit think they will get away with telling the British people that they were wrong, and that they will delay or stop Brexit?
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), a fellow member of the Petitions Committee, for introducing it.
Although I fundamentally disagree with the premise of the petition, I absolutely understand some of the frustrations that people feel. I admit that there have been many times over the past few months that even I—somebody who is passionate about leaving the European Union—have wondered whether it is not too much hassle, and whether saying, “Let’s call the whole thing off,” might be the easiest course of action. However, I believe that if we did that, we would be fundamentally wrong, and would be making a huge and damaging mistake. It would be hugely damaging to our democracy for us to seek to undo the democratic decision that the British people made in the 2016 referendum.
This House was absolutely clear at that time that we were allowing the British people to make the decision in that referendum, and that we would carry out the instruction that they gave us. If we do not deliver on that commitment, we will further damage, and perhaps destroy for a long time, the last bit of trust in this place and our democracy. We all accept that trust in politics is at a pretty low ebb. Given the way that this House and many Members and former Members have behaved in recent months, we can hardly blame people for having a very low opinion of it. It is sad to say that none of the main political parties comes out of this process with any credit, given the way we have gone about things. Ignoring the result of the referendum would do lasting damage, and I believe that there would be a significant backlash from the electorate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason why people in every constituency in Lancashire, and people in the north-west, the north-east, the south-west and the south-east, voted to leave was that for far too long they had felt as if they did not have a voice? This Parliament suddenly gave them a voice via the referendum, but it now wants to reinforce the view that their voice does not matter. It would be hugely dangerous not to carry out the wishes of the British people.
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has been looking at my notes, but that was going to be my next point. He has made it very well for me. Many thousands of people up and down the country, particularly in the parts that he highlighted, voted for the first time in their lives, or certainly for the first time in a very long time, in that referendum for the simple reason that they thought that, because it was a nationwide referendum, their vote would count and their voice would be heard. It would be an absolute denial of that if we did not deliver on the referendum.
Not delivering on the referendum would not just damage our democracy. We should think about what message it would send to the EU if, having gone through all this for almost three years, we turned round and said, “You know what? It’s a bit too difficult. I think we’ll reverse this, because it’s a bit too hard for us. It’s too tough a decision for us to make.” It would be a national embarrassment if, having gone through this process, we do not actually deliver on the referendum. It would weaken our position in the EU. Let us not pretend that, by revoking the triggering of article 50 and pretending that none of this ever happened, somehow we will go back to pre-2016 times as though nothing had ever happened. It would undermine and damage our position in the EU in a way that would be massively damaging to our country.
If the conclusion is that it is too difficult, too complex and too politically challenging ever to leave the EU, that would be the final confirmation, if one were needed, that we have surrendered our national sovereignty and are trapped in a political union that will inevitably lead to further integration with the EU. That would be the only conclusion that could be drawn if, after voting to leave and spending nearly three years trying to get out, we cannot do that. Clearly, we would never leave the EU. It would show the EU that we are too weak and timid, and that we lack the courage, faith and optimism in our nation to leave.
Let us be clear that many people feel frustration because we are not where we want to be. We should never have been in this position. It is clearly an understatement to say that we are not where we wanted to be. This close to the deadline, we should not still be debating whether we will actually leave. It is absolutely ludicrous that, after all this time, the question of whether we will actually leave the EU is still on the table. That issue was settled when this House voted to give the people of this country a referendum, and when, after people gave us their decision, a huge majority of this House voted to trigger article 50. The decision was made then that we will leave. It should not be in any doubt. This matter should have been settled once and for all. It is a failure of leadership—of politics—that we have not been able to settle this issue clearly and finally.
Many people up and down the country—particularly some of those we were referring to earlier—who voted in that referendum because they wanted their voice to be heard do not believe that we will ever leave. I speak to them in my constituency every weekend that I go back. They come to me and say, “Please tell me that we are actually going to leave.” I say, “Well, as far as I’m concerned, and if I have anything to do with it, yes we will.” They go on to tell me that they genuinely believe that we are in the midst of an establishment stitch-up that will somehow find a way to ignore the referendum result—some clever parliamentary shenanigans to undo it—and we will not actually leave. Thousands of people across the country think that. If we prove them right and allow Brexit not to happen, we will reinforce their view. That will be hugely damaging to our society.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend’s constituents are aware—I am sure that many of mine are not—but under the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, our defence and intelligence would be subordinate to Europe, after 40 years of our trying very hard to avoid that. Are we not a tier 1 military power? We have some of the best intelligence services in the world. We are now signing up to EU defence structures “to the extent possible under EU law”. That is a massive change that mortally threatens our relationship with the United States and damages the Five Eyes.
Order. The hon. Member, who did not have the decency to arrive when the debate started, is making an intervention, not a speech. Can he get to the question?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Five Eyes and our relationship with the United States are mortally threatened? The British people do not realise that.
I am deliberately trying to avoid being drawn into a debate about the withdrawal agreement because I am not sure that that is what the petition is actually about, but my hon. Friend makes a good point. There are many serious concerns about the content of the withdrawal agreement, and he has highlighted one about defence and security. My fundamental problem with the withdrawal agreement is that it puts our country in a worse and weaker position than now, which is why it does not have my support as it stands.
Part of the problem is that this House has been gripped by fear. Far too many people in positions of responsibility in Parliament and in Government seem paralysed by the fear of the unknown. Let us be clear: that is what this is partly about, because some argue that we do not know what Brexit is going to mean. Yes—that is the point. We do not know because we are breaking free of the security blanket of something to which we have belonged for 40 years, and we cannot answer every question. But do you know what? The British people had the guts and courage, and the faith in our country, to vote for it anyway.
I reflect on my experience in 2014, when the Bank of England and all the establishment figures whom the hon. Gentleman is currently railing against told the people of Scotland how difficult things would be if they broke away from that security blanket. Does he not understand that there is a bit of an inconsistency in that argument?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but no, there is not, because despite all those arguments, a majority of the people of the United Kingdom had the courage to vote to leave anyway. That is exactly the point.
We have to ask: what has happened in our politics when, it appears to me, the average voter in the United Kingdom has more courage and more faith, confidence and optimism in our nation’s ability to get through Brexit, to make it a success and to thrive than the political and business leaders and the establishment? I ask myself: what has happened to put us in a place where the British people have more confidence in our country than many of our leaders?
To paraphrase the hon. Gentleman, the people of Scotland did not vote “Yes” in the 2014 referendum because they were cowards.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that those who promoted leaving the Union clearly did not sell their positive message enough to get people to vote for it. In the European Union referendum, however, that clearly did happen.
In truth, the independence movement in Scotland did not want to be independent, because they would not say that they would have an independent currency or that they would leave the European Union. We really do want to be independent and that is why we won.
It is well documented that I have not been the biggest fan of our Prime Minister during this process. I believe that many mistakes have been made that have led us to where we are today, such as the lack of a clear starting position for negotiations, allowing the EU to dictate the timetable and nature of negotiations, and not preparing properly and early enough for a no-deal Brexit, to name a few. Clearly, we could have done so much better and, with better leadership, we could have been in a better position.
I am also very clear that not all the blame rests with the Prime Minister. Many Members of both Houses—and former Members of this House—have played a part in undermining her negotiating position almost every step of the way. Every one of them must share responsibility for our position. It is now quite clear that members of the Cabinet and other senior members of Government have publicly and vocally said that they support the Government’s position of “no deal is better than a bad deal”, while crossing their fingers behind their backs the whole way. When it appears that no deal might actually arise, they make it clear that they do not support that position and threaten to resign if it happens. To find out that those people, who supposedly supported a Government position, did not really mean it, is enough to undermine trust in our politics.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in any negotiation, being able to walk away makes our position stronger? If the person who we are negotiating with knows that we ultimately have to accept a deal under whatever circumstance, the deal is not going to be very good.
My hon. Friend makes the point very well. If we say that we can only leave the EU with an agreement, we are actually saying that we can leave only on the terms that the EU dictates. If it knows that we will not walk away without a deal, it will dictate the terms—as in any negotiation—and that has been part of the problem all along. Too many people in this House—those on the Opposition Front Bench have certainly contributed to this position—have told the EU, “We will not allow Parliament to take the UK out of the EU without a deal,” and it has believed it. The EU has not been willing to come to the negotiating table in good faith and negotiate a good deal because it has known all along that Parliament was very unlikely to allow us to walk away without a deal.
Too many Members of this House have also said publicly “We respect the referendum result”—some even stood on manifestos that said so—while working tirelessly behind the scenes every week to undermine the result and find a way to prevent it from happening. That has also been hugely damaging to trust in our politics.
We will find out only in the years ahead, when all this is over and the history books about this period have been written, exactly how damaging those who have sought to undermine the Prime Minister’s negotiating position have really been to our country. I believe they have been hugely damaging and have largely contributed to where we are today. Only when the history books have been written will we really understand all that has gone on behind the scenes to give the message to the EU that we will stop the UK leaving if we can, in any way that we can. That has been massively damaging to our chances of getting a withdrawal agreement and future deal that this House can support.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that another part of the problem is that, at the outset, the UK Government stated that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed? Had we gone to the negotiating table, had some debate and arranged something, we would have created a working relationship between us and the EU27, which we could then have built on, implemented and fine-tuned over time. We started off on the wrong foot, where we have stayed for two and a half years.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman; as I said earlier, many mistakes were made, and some of the serious ones were made right at the start of negotiations, when we started negotiating from a very weak position without really knowing what we wanted from all this. His point falls in that category. We should have been much clearer and much stronger.
Those who seek to promote a second referendum, and have done so for a very long time, have also massively undermined the Government’s negotiating position. Those people have given a message to the EU that the referendum result can be overturned. That has encouraged the EU to give us a bad deal. Everything points to the fact that if there is to be a second referendum—I will do everything I can to stop that happening—and the deal on the table is bad enough, no one will vote for it and we will stay in. Clearly, some of the unguarded comments by leading members of the EU have betrayed that. They think that if they give the UK a bad enough deal, we will reject it and eventually reverse the decision and stay in. Those calling for a second referendum have contributed to our being where we are today.
I do not know whether the Prime Minister will come back from Strasbourg with something. I genuinely wish her well, and I hope she can come back with something substantial and a genuine change to the backstop that is legally binding, which hopefully we can get behind. I hope that happens, but if it does not, it is imperative that we leave the EU on 29 March, as we voted for and time and again have said we will.
Everyone talks about uncertainty. Let us be clear: virtually every business I talk to says that uncertainty is killing them. They would rather know what will happen, even if they do not particularly like it, to have certainty rather than drag this out for months or years to come. Any extension of article 50 will do no more than prolong the uncertainty, the agony and the debate, with no clear answers for business.
I have come to the conclusion that unless the Prime Minister can get substantial changes to the backstop, the only way to deliver on the referendum result—to keep our commitment to the British people and deliver what people voted for—is to leave on 29 March with no deal. That is what I will be working to achieve.
It is a great pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank those who initiated the petition, which has secured over 130,000 signatures, including many from my constituency. I must also thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for eloquently opening the debate.
I have the privilege, pleasure and displeasure of summing up the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. Having listened to the previous speeches, I feel a bit like I am in a European Research Group support group meeting. The hon. Member for Cambridge made an excellent contribution; he spoke passionately in favour of the European Union and reflected on his experience of representing a university town. There is no doubt that our universities will be worse off as a result of our pulling up the drawbridge and adopting the isolationist approach that the Brexiteers seem to advance.
We had an incredibly consistent speech from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood). He outlined his fantasy Budget if he was in the Treasury. Unfortunately for him, his party has moved away from that. He rightly spoke about investing more in social care, but he omitted to mention that we have an ageing population and we will need people to look after them when we limit free movement of people. I am not sure that was factored into his economic analysis.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who is a friend, spoke about our turning into a national embarrassment. I fear that point may have come already. Legal action is being taken against us for contracts with a ferry company with no ferries. We may have already arrived at the point of national embarrassment —a view shared even by Brexiteers.
The clock is ticking towards leaving the European Union in just 18 days. I cannot believe that this close to Brexit we still do not know what will happen. When I speak to my constituents I find that incredibly embarrassing. Even as a remainer, I find it embarrassing to go round my constituency and explain to folk that we still do not know what will happen. People look to me as a Member of Parliament and say, “You must know what is happening because you are in the House of Commons.” The reality is that the vast majority of us are still getting our information on Twitter about when the Prime Minister is flying to Strasbourg, when we might get updated legal advice from the Attorney General, and when or if at all we might have meaningful votes this week. That is a national embarrassment that brings this place into disrepute.
The latest Twitter update is that there will be a statement to the House at 9 pm. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) has said, “We may have reached a point where there might be an agreement, and we will keep an open mind.”
I am grateful for that update at 5.34 pm. A statement is expected at 9 o’clock but it may change a couple more times, so I will take that with a pinch of salt.
The Prime Minister has spent the last two years trying to placate her own party while its members peddle their almost impossible visions of a post-Brexit future to the public. After the referendum, the SNP attempted to extend an olive branch and said we would back a deal that offered to keep Scotland in the customs union and the single market. As the right hon. Member for Wokingham said, that fell on deaf ears. Instead, the Prime Minister opted to lead the country towards the hardest of Brexits, simply to pursue her personal vendetta against immigration. She has done so without a plan or a roadmap of what this Brexit will look like; instead she goes around with meaningful words such as “Brexit means Brexit” and “I’m going to make a success of this.” Ms McDonagh, if you know what that means, I would be delighted to know. For the last two and a half years we have been told that Brexit means Brexit, but what does that mean?
With days to go, we still do not know what Brexit will look like. The Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee heard last week that the Government still have no idea whether the UK can remain in EU food safety systems after Brexit. Yesterday, Simon Fraser, the former Foreign and Commonwealth Office official, described the state of affairs as
“a shocking failure of our government and our parliament, and a national humiliation”.
I could not agree more. The Conservative Government in Westminster have shown they are institutionally incapable of acting in the best interests of the Scottish people.
I have described this chaos without even touching on the effects that Brexit will have for Scotland, its people and our business community. As I said in my earlier intervention, people in Scotland voted 62% in favour of remaining in the EU—higher than anywhere else on these islands. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Scottish jobs are under threat from a no-deal Brexit. The right hon. Member for Wokingham often talks about economic analysis. That analysis is not from the SNP but from the independent Fraser of Allander Institute, which has outlined that 100,000 jobs would be at risk as a result of a hard Brexit.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will—it is nice of the hon. Gentleman to drop in on us.
The hon. Gentleman is having a go at my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, but is he aware of my right hon. Friend’s extremely distinguished career in finance and his knowledge of economics?
I am—unlike the hon. Gentleman, I was here when the right hon. Member for Wokingham spoke earlier. I am indeed aware of his expertise in finance and some of the advice he has given people, including recently when he advised them to take their money elsewhere.
That is completely untrue and I hope the hon. Gentleman will withdraw that false allegation.
No, I will not. I will continue with my speech.
The equivalent of the entire working population of Dundee stands to lose their jobs. The economic effect on Scotland is expected to be even worse than that of the 2008 recession. Businesses, institutions and notable leaders are up in arms over this dereliction of duty. The CBI, the Scottish and Welsh Governments, the National Farmers Union of Scotland, car makers and manufacturers are all united in their opposition to a no-deal Brexit advocated by some speakers in this debate. On top of all that, we face the loss of the free movement of people, which has helped to grow and support our ageing population.
The SNP has been consistent—not a popular position in Parliament—in supporting calls for the extension of article 50 and a people’s vote. That is the only sensible course of action left. The UK Government cannot continue to attempt to strong-arm Parliament into accepting their deal by threatening a no-deal scenario. In his dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, George Orwell described “doublethink” as
“holding simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them”.
Instead of reading the book as a cautionary tale, the Prime Minister seems to have taken it as an instruction manual. She has expected the Scottish people to accept three conflicting opinions at the same time: first, we would leave the customs union—a promise made to appease the European Research Group. Secondly, there would be no hard border in Northern Ireland—a promise made to appease Dublin and adhere to the Good Friday agreement. Thirdly, there will be regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK—a promise made to the Democratic Unionist party. There is no world in which all three are simultaneously possible. The Prime Minister knows that, but instead of showing real leadership and working to reach a compromise, she hopes to placate different groups with promises she cannot deliver on, and scare them into voting for her deal by threatening us with no deal.
I will be absolutely clear: we must not crash out of the European Union with no deal. To allow that to happen would be a complete failure of governance and an abdication of responsibility. The Conservative party might be happy with that, but we in the SNP are committed to building a fairer and better future for the Scottish people. Our preferred option is for the whole of the UK to remain in the European Union, but, failing that, our compromise is that the UK should remain in the customs union and the single market. I believe there would be a majority for that in the House. It is clear that further negotiations are needed to find an outcome that works for everyone, so we support the extension of article 50 and a people’s vote.
The Prime Minister is content to lead the country down the garden path with no idea what waits at the end. That is utterly unacceptable. The Scottish people deserve a Government that have their best interests at heart, but Westminster has shown repeatedly throughout this Brexit mess that it does not have our interests at heart. It is for that reason that many Scots, including many of those who voted no in 2014, are rapidly concluding that the only way to have a Government with our interests at heart is to have an independent Government and to rejoin the family of nations.
Order. This is the first time I have had to deal with an issue of whether to ask a Member to withdraw a comment about another Member, so bear with me. Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that he was imputing no bad motive in his comments about the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood)?
Can you clarify what I am being asked to withdraw, Ms McDonagh?
As I heard it, your comments were that the right hon. Member for Wokingham had earned money as a result of giving advice about the EU and the withdrawal negotiations.
That is absolutely on the record. The right hon. Gentleman’s declaration of financial interests shows that he does give advice for financial planning. Indeed, that was pointed out by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway). I said on the record what is already in the public domain about advice that has been given by the right hon. Member for Wokingham, and I stand by those comments.
Ms McDonagh, I think what was at issue was the accuracy of the statement. The hon. Gentleman said that I have urged people to take their money out of Britain because of Brexit. I have never said that, it is completely false, and I wish it to be withdrawn.
Does the hon. Member for Glasgow East wish to withdraw his comments? The right hon. Member for Wokingham has not, in his view, advised people to take their money out of Britain because of Brexit.
I am not willing to withdraw those comments. Indeed, I will be very happy to place a copy of the evidence in the Library before the close of business today.
The advice to me is that I cannot force the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his comments. I call Jenny Chapman.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) talked about soundbites. We have heard, “Brexit means Brexit,” “No deal is better than a bad deal,” and—my personal favourite—“Red, white and blue Brexit”. I remember when soundbites were good—I know you do too, Ms McDonagh. I remember, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”—soundbites that actually meant something. Those were the days.
I congratulate the petitioners and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on bringing forward this debate. The fact that thousands of people signed a petition that asks us to put a stop to this whole process speaks to the frustration that is clearly present in many communities up and down the country. I would observe, though, that that frustration, and the petitioners’ preferred solution to it, is not equally shared around our country. Some 100 of my constituents signed the petition, I notice that 1,100 of my hon. Friend’s constituents signed it, and there are other places, which voted more heavily to leave, where I do not think anybody thought it was a very good idea.
It is pretty clear that what started off as a division within the Tory party has spread across the country, and we find that we now have a nation divided. I hope you are proud of what you have done. I am not. I deeply regret the state we have got ourselves into. I voted remain, but I said the day the result became clear and the moment I found my constituency had voted to leave that I would respect that result.
I voted to trigger article 50. My party supported that position, and we supported starting negotiations, but what a mess you have made of it. I never, ever thought, even in my—[Interruption.] What a mess the Conservatives have made of it. I correct myself, Ms McDonagh—I would never suggest that you would have made such a bad job of this negotiation. If only you were leading it, I am sure we would be in a much better place by now. It could hardly be worse. That is clearly what is in the minds of the petitioners, who just want it to stop. They have had enough. I know exactly where they are coming from, but I do feel, even at this stage, that I must continue to honour the decision my constituents made.
Revoking article 50 is clearly possible. The European Court of Justice, in its ruling on the matter, said we could revoke article 50 should we want to. I think it was the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), who is no longer in his place, who said that that would be seen very negatively, particularly by communities in which people voted very strongly to leave. If we revoked article 50 unilaterally, without the consent of the British people, he would probably be right.
It seems to many people who think we should be looking for a way out of this situation that the only way to do that is to have another vote. That is not something I would ever enter into lightly or, I have to say, with any enthusiasm, but given the way the Government have mishandled this process, I find myself wondering whether only two options remain. One is to have a different deal that could get through Parliament. I will talk a little about what that might look like. The other may be to have another vote. I cannot over-emphasise my reluctance about that. I agree with most of the arguments against having another vote—arguments about division and trust in politics—but, even so, that may be the only option that remains if we are stuck in this impasse and we need to break the deadlock. Given where we are today—it looks like, in 24 hours’ time, we will be voting again and rejecting the Prime Minister’s deal, probably in almost the same way we did only a few weeks ago —we need to agree a way forward.
Government Members spoke at length about the backstop. The backstop is not really the fundamental problem. The best way to deal with the backstop is to have a clear vision of the future, to know where we are going and to know what kind of relationship we are going to have with the European Union. That is how we would avoid ever having to use the backstop. The problem we have is that the Prime Minister has been unable to be clear—in her own mind, perhaps, but certainly with Parliament—about where she intends to take the country after we have left. I can only imagine that is for reasons of party management, which, given what we have seen today, I think we can all understand. Because she has not been clear—because the political declaration is incredibly vague and could imply two very different visions of Brexit—we have been forced to focus on the backstop.
That really has not worked very well for the Prime Minister, if I can put it like that. She is now having to try to negotiate something that she hopes will be legally binding and will satisfy the needs of the Government Members who have spoken in the debate. I somehow doubt it. Perhaps it will be a form of unilateral mechanism. Perhaps it will be an end date. But even if either could somehow be negotiated, I doubt whether that would do the job that she needs to have done. We would still be lacking the fully-formed vision of the future direction of our country. I do not think that will be enough for MPs to be able to walk through the Lobby and say, “Yes, we support this,” because we care deeply about what happens to our constituents. We were all elected on manifestos and promises that said that we wanted to make our constituents more prosperous, to secure their jobs and to bring more employment to our constituencies. I said that the three times that I have been elected, and that is the promise that I would never, ever break.
I greatly appreciate the hon. Lady’s thoughtful speech, but just because the political class has messed it up, does that mean we have to ignore the will of the British people and go back to them to get what the political class thinks is the right answer?
It is not the political class that has messed it up; it is the Tory party. I do not think even somebody as unsympathetic to my side of the House as the hon. Gentleman can lay this at Labour’s door.
I totally agree with the hon. Lady. It is an appalling spectacle to see Conservative MPs going against the will of their constituents. I quite agree with her.
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me. I do not see how this could have gone much worse. It is appalling to see businesses spending millions of pounds—which they should be investing in their workforce, their sites and their products—on consultants and preparations for a no-deal departure, because the Government have refused to rule it out. The Conservative party will be judged on that very dimly in the future. Businesses in the north-east in the automotive, chemical and pharmaceuticals industries are clear with me that they are spending vast amounts on preparing for the idea that we will leave without a deal in 18 days. Even though Parliament has rejected that outcome, the Prime Minister dare not face down her own party and be clear that that is not what she intends to do.
Is the hon. Lady’s experience the same as mine? When I have asked businesses in my constituency if they would prefer a no-deal Brexit or a Labour Government led by the current leader of the Labour party, every single business I have spoken to said, “I will take a no-deal Brexit every time.”
The hon. Gentleman is cheap. We are 18 days away from leaving the European Union. His party does not have a negotiated deal that could get through this Parliament. That is where he is; it is his party that has done that, not my party. Businesses ask me what a Labour Brexit would look like, and I can tell them. They say to me, “Yes, that is a future I can work in. That is an economic framework that I can keep my business thriving in.” They look at what is happening now, with the hon. Gentleman’s party in power, and they are horrified. I am horrified, and he should be horrified. It is nothing to be proud of. He can make cheap comments about my party leader if he likes—everyone knows my views about this—but it is his party leader who has misled and mismanaged this process, not mine.
We now have two options. My party leader, who the hon. Gentleman so derides, has written to the Prime Minister outlining a sensible deal that is negotiable. It has been well received by colleagues in the European Union, and is actually quite well received by Members on the hon. Gentleman’s Benches. The options set out in that letter ought to be put to the test of a vote in Parliament. Why is the Prime Minister too afraid to do that? It is because when we put a customs union to the vote in June, and the Prime Minister whipped against it as hard as she could, we lost by a grand total of six votes. I suggest that that is something that could find support in Parliament, and I would like to get it before the House of Commons so we can test it.
Such a deal would be supported by businesses, trade unions and the CBI, as well as in Northern Ireland—the Ulster farmers have been crying out for it. Everybody who has any real interest in this issue and has looked at it carefully has come out and supported that proposal. It is a real shame that the Prime Minister is so cowed by her own party that she will not put it before the House of Commons.
The Labour party wrote to the Prime Minister. We asked for a
“comprehensive UK-wide customs union…Close alignment with the Single Market…Dynamic alignment on rights and protections…Clear commitments on participation in EU agencies…Unambiguous agreements on the detail of future security arrangements”.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) is never going to agree with that; it is not his vision for Brexit. I am not going to attempt to persuade him that it should be, because we would be here a long time. I accept that. He is entitled to vote for a different vision of Brexit, if that is what he feels is right. Surely, Members are entitled to vote for what we think would be the right outcome, if, as we believe, it is negotiable even at this late stage. If the deal does not get through tomorrow, it behoves the Minister and his colleagues to work out how it would work and what the process would be to enable us to have a vote on a different type of deal, which we could negotiate with Brussels.
Whatever happens, we cannot have a border in Northern Ireland; everybody accepts that. However, nobody has provided a credible means of achieving that. We have had suggestions about “alternative arrangements”—whatever they are—and there has been talk about technology. Our team visited the border between Norway and Sweden, which is the most technologically advanced in the world. There is infrastructure there to make checks, take payments and provide security, because it is a border between two different customs territories. There is nowhere on the planet where there is a border between two different customs territories and no infrastructure. Try as we might to find a different solution—and we did try—we have been unable to do so. It seems as if no one else has been able to find one either. It is impossible not to have border infrastructure if there is no customs union. It cannot be done. For that reason, as well as all the benefits to manufacturing that are important to me in north-east England, we have concluded that we need to be part of a customs union after we leave the European Union.
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
The other thing I hear all the time from businesses is that they do not want us to leave at all without a deal. It seems odd that the Government are persisting in keeping that option open. I note that a couple of weeks ago—the last time she was confronting heavy defeats—the Prime Minister said that, should her deal not succeed tomorrow, Parliament would have the opportunity to vote against leaving without a deal. I know the Minister does not have a crystal ball, but it would be helpful to colleagues if he could clarify exactly what we will be voting on tomorrow. Who knows? Will this be a straightforward vote on the Prime Minister’s deal, whether it be the same deal we voted on previously or an amended deal? When will we find out what we will be voting on? If it is a different deal, will we be given an opportunity to examine that deal prior to the debate tomorrow? When will that motion be laid before the House? Will there be opportunity for colleagues to amend it? That is something we have discussed at length previously, and it is only fair that Members are given that opportunity.
That is tomorrow. What about Wednesday? Assuming that the deal does not go through tomorrow, we were promised by the Prime Minister that there would be an opportunity to vote on leaving without a deal. Will that still be the case on Wednesday and, if it is, what position will the Government take? Will Wednesday be the day when, finally, the Government of this country say to businesses, the public, communities such as mine and their own colleagues that they do not intend to take the UK out of the EU without a deal? We need to know. Do the Government still intend on Thursday, as the Prime Minister promised, to have a vote on whether we need more time? If that promise is kept, how much more time does the Minister intend we should have, and what does he intend to do with it? What form will the motion on Thursday take? I am not asking him to foretell anything very far ahead; just the next three days will do. We need to know what MPs will be asked to decide on this week, on behalf of our constituents. These are probably the most important decisions that we shall ever be asked to make. We were promised by the Prime Minister that they would be taken this week, but we have not had confirmation of that or information about what the votes will look like.
The chaos we have seen, the way the negotiations have been mishandled, and the situation we are in, just days away from 29 March, make me embarrassed for Parliament. Unfortunately, the blame can only be laid at the door of the Prime Minister, because of the way she has led the process. The Minister is a decent person, and it falls to him—
The hon. Lady is asking good questions about what our business will be, but I fear our ministerial friend cannot answer tonight. We shall probably find out later from the Prime Minister, who will be controlling those things.
The hon. Lady said she thought a second referendum might be a good idea. Can she tell us what the question would be? If it is “Accept the withdrawal agreement or stay in,” there is no option for leave. If it is “Accept the withdrawal agreement or leave without a deal” there is no option for remain; so what would the question be?
I do not think I have ever said that a second referendum would be a good idea. It is something I should be incredibly reluctant to support, but I have to recognise, if I do not want to leave without a deal, that the only thing that stands between leaving with a deal and leaving without one may be to put the issue back to the country. It is not something I want to happen, at all. Because I am not enthusiastic about it I have not thought through what the questions should be. That is one of the problems with the proposal for another referendum. Those who propose it have not made the matter clear. It is deeply problematic and risky. Who knows where it might lead, and what the experience might do to our country? I am not enthusiastic about it at all; I want to make that clear—but I have to accept, given that I do not want to leave without a deal, that it may be necessary.
One thing that I have been finding difficult in Scotland is Labour’s position on a people’s vote. Is the hon. Lady saying that, 18 days out from Brexit, and possibly looking over the cliff edge, the British Labour party and Scottish Labour party have not really thought through what the fall-back option is when 100,000 jobs could be lost from the economy? Does she understand that that is why Labour in Scotland is in such a perilous position—because 18 days out it does not have an answer on a people’s vote?
We do. We would accept a people’s vote, but we would also accept a deal along the lines that I have outlined. I know that being able to back either option might be a little complicated for some colleagues who like a nice single answer, but Brexit is not like that, and never has been. The position that the Labour party adopted is not where we wanted to be. The situation is not of our making. However, the situation we are in now, with just 18 days to go, means that we would be prepared to accept either one of those options in preference to the deal that will probably be rejected tomorrow, or leaving without a deal. I should hope that the hon. Gentleman could understand what I have just explained to him.
I shall conclude now, Mr Hosie—it is good to see you in the Chair. However, I should like the Minister to explain clearly and precisely, if he can, what we shall be voting on tomorrow.
This is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I have been looking forward to it. I hope I do not get into as much trouble as the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) did earlier, when he was very much out of order. If you would pass on our thanks to Ms McDonagh for the way she chaired the first part of the sitting, it would be much appreciated.
I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee in his normal courteous manner. He and perhaps the hon. Member for Glasgow East will remember, as I do, that there are people with principled positions on both sides of the argument. I know that the hon. Gentlemen are wrong and they are convinced that I am wrong, but in our own principled ways we go about our debate in the most courteous fashion, and I am sure that the altercation we had earlier can be sorted out in a generous way.
It is a pleasure for me to be responding this afternoon because I am a big fan of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), and I have never answered a debate in which he has spoken. Obviously, I tend to agree with a huge amount of what he said, and especially his comments about why most leave voters chose to vote as they did. He also made a number of economic points, and they were well made. He pointed out that there are plenty of arguments available to people who voted leave, beyond the important matter of democracy.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) made an excellent speech. He and the hon. Member for Cambridge are a good double team. They do not necessarily need an Opposition or Government spokesman to deal with any of the business, because they seem to cover the bases fairly well on each side. There were also some good interventions in the debate. The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) mentioned her reticence—although not about her own position on Brexit, which, as she said, has been fairly clear from the moment the votes were in. She is on the record saying:
“The public is in Brexit driving seat. MPs won’t block Article 50 and we shouldn’t be planning 2nd referendum.”
She has said she is not a populist but is respectful of the referendum result—and she said so again today; and that if Labour ignored the referendum it would get what it deserved: wipeout. She has talked of supporting Brexit as a consequence of the referendum, because Labour can influence the deal, but not if they are wreckers. However, by taking no deal off the table that is exactly what Labour becomes—a wrecking party in the negotiations—and I know that the hon. Lady knows that.
I want to congratulate the petitioners on their achievement, before completely disappointing them in my response. It is quite something to get over 100,000 signatures on a petition. We were talking briefly before the sitting about how many Brexit-related petitions there have been. I am led to believe that the referendum has stimulated the Petitions Committee and tickled its tummy like no other subject, and it will probably continue to do so. The petition is headed:
“Revoke Art.50 if there is no Brexit plan by the 25 of February”.
I suppose I could be pedantic and say that the Prime Minister has a plan. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham has a plan. There is a plan called the Malthouse compromise A and there is a Malthouse compromise B plan. I think that the Opposition have a plan of their own, although it changes rather. So we are not short of plans at the moment. We are, however, short of a plan that can get the support of Parliament.
I could just answer the petition by saying that there are plenty of plans about, but I will not. I will outline the position that the Government continues to hold on the question of revocation. It remains a matter of firm policy that we will not revoke the article 50 notice, a position which the Prime Minister reminded the House of as recently as two weeks ago, when she stated:
“I have been clear throughout the process that my aim is to bring the country back together… This House can only do that by implementing the decision of the British people”.—[Official Report, 26 February 2019; Vol. 655, c. 167.]
I will outline some of the reasons the Government have chosen to take this position. First, we will not revoke article 50 because of the clear and decisive result of the 2016 referendum. In 2016, the Government held a referendum on the question of our membership of the European Union. When we held that referendum, the Government pledged to respect its result, whatever the outcome. As the Prime Minister recently said in the House,
“Parliament gave the choice to the people. In doing so, we told them that we would honour their decision.”—[Official Report, 26 February 2019; Vol. 655, c. 168.]
Almost three quarters of the electorate took part in that referendum to have their say about the future of the United Kingdom and its relationship with the European Union. Almost three quarters of the electorate—millions of British people—took part in that referendum trusting that their vote would count, that their voices would be heard and that their will, democratically expressed, would be respected. With that in mind, 17.4 million people voted to express to the Government that their democratic wish was for the UK to leave the European Union. As I have highlighted a number of times before, that is the highest number of votes and the biggest democratic mandate for any course of action ever directed at any UK Government. My right hon. and hon. Friends will see that if we move to revoke article 50, we would be breaking the trust that the British people placed in their Government when they cast their votes.
Further to that point, not only did the Government make a commitment before the referendum vote to uphold the result, but the Government, and indeed Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, made express commitments to the British people after the referendum result to both endorse and uphold it. Parliament—encompassing both Government and Opposition members—endorsed and validated the 2016 result by voting with clear and convincing majorities in both Houses in favour of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017. That is, Parliament voted to implement the instruction delivered by the 2016 referendum by voting to trigger article 50 and exit the European Union.
Next, Members of both major parties stood in the 2017 general election and were elected on manifestos in which they committed themselves to upholding the referendum result. I know that is uncomfortable for many hon. Members in both major political parties, but it is something our electorate will not forget. For those of us in leave-voting areas, it is something that they do not let us forget and remind us of heavily on a daily basis. We all risk breaking that promise made to the British people in our election manifestos by revoking article 50.
The British people must be able to trust in Government and in democracy to act on their will and to keep promises. The Prime Minister has made clear in recent statements the very real concern that undoing the 2016 referendum result
“could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy.”—[Official Report, 21 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 26.]
Instead, as she emphasised, our “absolute focus” should be on agreeing a deal and leaving the European Union on 29 March, as instructed and as promised.
The hon. Member for Darlington asked me what is likely to happen in the next few days. She is quite right; I am not Mystic Meg and I do not have a crystal ball. However, I did listen to the urgent question and the answer given to it on the Floor of the House today, where commitments were made along the lines that the hon. Lady outlined earlier. We will find out more, because I believe the Government will be making a statement later today, updating the House on the progress of the discussions that have been happening throughout the day.
I will not try to pre-empt what on earth the conclusions might be, but as soon as there is a conclusion to those negotiations, the House will be updated, and a meaningful vote will take place tomorrow. The motion will be tabled today, ahead of that debate, and if the hon. Lady cares to read the rest of the statement given by my fellow Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), she will get all the answers she requires in great detail.
I reiterate that it remains our position not to revoke article 50. We will not frustrate the outcome of the 2016 referendum. It is the responsibility of this Government to deliver the exit that people voted for, and that is what we shall do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I thank everyone for their contributions to the debate. Passions run deep, and I think our constituents would expect us to speak with passion on these issues. There are strongly held differences of opinion.
One of the things I wanted to use this debate for was to remind people that the 48% feel strongly too, but I am disappointed that during the debate I got no sense that the other side understand how people in the 48% feel. I am not sure there will be a successful resolution until solutions are brought forward that respect both sides of the debate. On that note, I must say how very impressed I was with the contribution from my colleague on the shadow Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman). If the negotiations had been conducted in that spirit and with such care, we would be in a very different place today.
We frequently hear about “getting on with it”. I do not think people quite realise where we will be standing on 29 March if we go out either with no deal or with the Prime Minister’s deal. It will be not a matter of getting on with it, but the start of it—the start of an endless period of negotiation and rancour in the years ahead. That is one of my great fears. As for fear of the unknown, there is a reason to fear the unknown; it is sometimes quite sensible to fear that. I caution against a leap into the dark.
Finally, I will slightly disagree with my hon. Friend, because it seems to me that we have learned so much more in the past few years that it is not unreasonable to say, “The position is now very different from where we were in 2015, and the sensible thing would actually be to go back to the people to ask them whether this is what they want.” I do not see anything remotely undemocratic in that, and my guess is that that is where we will end up.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 239706 relating to leaving the European Union.